A Conversation with Dr. Carol Beynon

A Conversation with Dr. Carol Beynon
Jessica L. Allen, ACDA-MI Graduate Student Representative

On November 1, 2016, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Carol Beynon, one of ACDA Michigan’s fall conference headliners, to ask her some follow-up questions and satisfy some of my own curiosities.

Dr. Beynon is the founding co-artistic director of the Amabile Boys and Men’s Choirs of London, Canada, and is Associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Western Ontario. Under her direction, the Amabile Boys and Men’s Choirs have performed and competed throughout North America and abroad and most recently won national choral competitions sponsored by Choral Canada. Beynon’s research focuses on intergenerational learning through singing, the impact of singing on people with Alzheimer’s Disease, and gender issues in music education. She is the first author of the book Learning to Teach published by Pearson Canada (2001) and co-editor of Critical Perspectives in Canadian Music Education (2012).

At the conference, Dr. Beynon led the undergraduate conducting Masterclass, conducted the headliner choir Primus: Amabile Men’s Choir, and presented an interest session titled “Singing my way back to you: Reflecting on the singing and learning journeys of persons with Alzheimer’s Disease, caregivers, high school singers, and choral directors in an intergenerational choir.”

JA: You describe yourself as a lifelong student of learning. Talk about what this means to you and how it has shaped your personal development and teaching.

CB: There’s a time in your life when you’re much younger than I am at this point when you’re in school, you think you’re going to learn everything, and then you’ll be done learning and have all the answers to all the questions. You only think about answers, you don’t think about questions. I think the more education you have, the more questions you have. Once you grow into an adult, become a parent, have a choir of your own, classes of your own and so on, you suddenly start questioning all of your own pedagogies and all of your own beliefs. Suddenly, they’re not someone else’s beliefs, they’re your own beliefs that you have to put into practice. Scholars give you input, and we all come up with an eclectic end of all that learning. As you’re working through all of those ideas with students, you suddenly realize that you don’t have an end to learning. You can learn and learn and learn and keep taking on new things. That’s the key that I wish for all of my students – that they could understand when it’s joyful to learn, when it’s fun to learn for your own education as opposed to when you “have to” learn. That’s the point in life when learning never stops. If it does, I think you’re dead! Or you mind is! This kind of learning doesn’t necessarily mean formal education. There’s a learning curve that goes with taking up something like golf or skating later in life, too.

JA: You are the founding and co-artistic director of the Amabile Boys and Men’s Choirs of London, Canada, and work extensively with men’s choirs. Gender identity is one of your research subject areas. As a female conductor, how do you address masculine identity in rehearsal settings with male singers?

CB: One of the parents of one of our university guys recently came to a concert, and she was sitting amidst people who said, “This is really unique that there’s a woman conducting a men’s choir.” Her son has sung with us since he was in grade nine, and he’s now in third year medical school. She said she had no idea it would be unique to have a woman conducting a men’s choir when we have men conducting men and men conducting women. About twenty years ago, we were competing with the choirs in Central Europe. My male counterpart conductor was with me, and when we went to pick up the trophy the judges wouldn’t give it to me – they walked around me and gave it to my co-conductor. We kind of laughed about it, but some of our singers who were in the audience were shocked I was ignored. My co-conductor walked off stage and said that I’d pick up the next trophy. The treble choir also won the competition, and I got up to accept it. The judges made the comment that it was okay to give this award to a woman for conducting because it was a treble choir. I was surprised when the issue of gender was brought up again recently. I work with the boys from the time they’re eight years old, and in our own location no one has ever questioned that I’m a woman working with men’s choirs.

When I work with men, masculine identity is not necessarily something we talk about. We probably talk about identity more so with the high school choir as they’re growing up. Part of what we do with them is character development. The kind of repertoire we choose can work toward character development – like pieces that promote peace for remembrance concerts. But there are just as many songs that will incite violence. We recently discussed Z. Randall Stroope’s setting of Dies irae and how it could incite people to be violent. We talked about how you can use music to incite the kind of sense you want in other people. Like when you hear your own national anthem – that sense of pride and nationalism you feel. With the young men, we’re always talking about how music can soften them. Music is a way to deal with conflict and life in a nonviolent way.

It’s interesting you ask about gender identity because it came up this past weekend for the first time in a long time, and I had almost totally forgotten about it. I can’t think of anyone who would see a man conducting a women’s choir or an SATB choir and ever comment on his gender.

JA: You work closely with Mark Payne to direct Primus, the headlining ensemble at the ACDA-MI conference. What makes a conducting partnership like that successful?

CB: In the Amabile organization, we have eight choirs: four on the women’s side and four on the men’s side starting from very young to older. It all began with our Amabile Youth Singers about thirty years ago and started with a conducting pair – a man and a woman working together. So when we decided that we were going to put together the boys and men’s choirs we thought it made sense to continue working in partnerships. For all of our men’s choirs we have partners working together, but things have changed in the past couple of years. I used to do all of the choirs and switch off with other conductors, so we never saw each other work; while I worked with the treble choir my partner worked with the high school choir, for example. Now I have some younger conductors coming in, so Mark and I just work with Primus and with the young men.

Co-conducting is a matter of choosing concerts together, choosing repertoire. We each have our own skills and strengths. Ken Fleet, my former partner, was a phenomenal musician but not the most organized person, so I took care of the organizational details. When we cut all the recordings for a CD, he would do all the arrangements, finish the edits, and put all that together. There’s a sharing of tasks. Another nice aspect is watching each other conduct and listening. For instance, we were singing a French piece a few weeks ago, and on the word “chante” the singers were singing a real “n” instead of singing the nasal vowel. I was busy thinking of something else, so Mark pointed the diction out. He’s a phenomenal songwriter and arranger, and he does a lot of things I don’t have the skills to do. This kind of partnership is very much like a marriage, like another husband you have to work with. You have to agree on the kinds of sound you want, the repertoire that you want to do, or who will do the piece you both want to do. There’s a lot of negotiation. When Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s I ended up having him sing, so I did three years with the choir by myself because I thought it would be good for me. Then I invited Mark three years ago to join me because I missed having another mentor alongside. The guys reacted in different ways. Some guys said they preferred working with me or they preferred working with Mark, but now they just see us as a team. We’ve been asked before, “Which one of you is the junior conductor?” Neither. We are both equal. I think working with a partner is really good for egos as well; it isn’t about you as a conductor, it’s about the organization. I want the choir to sing equally as well for Mark’s pieces, so I’ll work just as hard on his pieces if he happens to be away or to give feedback on those pieces. We’re all very much a team.

JA: In your interest session “Singing My Way Back to You,” you talked about intergenerational singing and the many benefits of singing for persons with Alzheimer’s Disease. What sparked your interest in the project initially? Was it Ken’s diagnosis?

CB: It was serendipitous and simultaneous, but his diagnosis certainly sparked my interest. With a team of researchers from around the world and a grant from our Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council on advanced interdisciplinary research in singing, we got four million dollars in funding over seven years. There’s a team working on the psychology of singing, a team working on music education and teaching and choirs – I work on the formal training of choral singing – and a team working on health and wellbeing. One of my colleagues at the University of Western Ontario was invited to do research because she does a lot of work with intergenerational art projects. Because she didn’t have a background in singing, she asked me to join her. We developed a number of programs, and we’re finding about mutual learning, literacy development, and so on – all of the side effects of singing and intergenerational arts. When the Alzheimer’s Society here decided to begin the intergenerational choir, they were looking for someone who would be involved in social science research as opposed to medical research with electrodes on the brain and that sort of thing. When I was invited, I jumped at the chance, because, number one, I didn’t have to set it up – I could simply go in as the researcher. Ken wasn’t involved with the project at first even though he was diagnosed by that point. We then made the suggestion that he come out to conduct because he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Certainly having him there was a benefit to learning about it. His disease progressed very rapidly, so he only lasted about a year and a half in the program and has been in long-term care since then. It was serendipitous that the program came up, coincided with the research that I was doing for this other project, and tied nicely to the health and wellbeing of these people suffering from dementia.

JA: What do you believe are the benefits of a multigenerational choir like Primus?

CB: We often have all four choirs sing together, and tomorrow night we’ll have a dress rehearsal. I’ll have the youngest boys in rehearsal for half an hour with Primus sitting beside them and helping them with things like holding the music up the right way. Much of our program is mentoring from the oldest to the youngest. In a multi-generational setting, most times each person is there for his or her own benefit. It doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen or sixty-six, you’re proving your skills as a tenor or proving your reading skills. In Primus, we’re considering creating a senior division. We have more and more men sixty and older who want to sing in an organization but don’t want the pressures of the high performance car that we’re driving for the younger ones. Whether we hive off another choir at this point I don’t know. The oldest member in our choir is an absolutely brilliant, award-winning physicist and the choral conductor for the local synagogue. He wants to enhance his skills and learn about singing but has issues keeping up with us. One of our other older singers is one of North America’s leading stroke researchers. These singers are at a point in their careers when they are thinking about retiring or are already retired and have a little more time. There’s an ageism that exists in our culture. I remember when forty seemed really old to me! It doesn’t matter if the tenor next to you is seventy-seven or twenty-seven if he’s phenomenal – you want to work with him. There is both interdependent and intradependent learning that happens with having many generations there.

Out of our two and a half rehearsal, the first hour is with the high school guys, and we try to intersperse them with the older singers. The kid who still kind of has a treble voice and probably should be in the treble choir but wants to sing with his peers in high school can sit beside a tenor and hear the kind of voice he’s developing. Blending the singers also keeps the older voices younger sounding and the younger voices sounding more mature. It’s been more of a challenge to keep Primus’ distinctive sound as certain singers get older.

JA: What research projects are ongoing or on the horizon for you?

CB: Right now I’m writing the intergenerational work that we’re doing with the folks with dementia. I just submitted an article to ACDA’s Choral Journal. They asked me to write something for them, and I think the article will be out in February. All the data is collected – I’m just putting the finishing touches on. Different research projects suddenly appear on your doorstep… I’m working on one project called Musical Futures, a music education program in the United Kingdom. Their slogan is: “Teach them the way they learn.” For beginning musicians grade six and up, they put instruments in students’ hands and ask them what they want to play. Whether they want to play a pop tune by Green Day or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” they take up an instrument and learn how to play what they’re interested in. We’re looking at informal learning and teaching in which the teacher becomes a guide as opposed to a conventional band or vocal class. We have some pilot projects going. There’s also a new Let’s Play program that began in the UK. Lucy Green’s research is very informative. She grew up as a formally trained musician and is married to a very famous garage band musician. There’s a really strong Kodaly program where we’ve asked the teacher to try something different with grades 7 and 8 and put instruments in the students’ hands – in this case guitars and drums – and they’re learning some pretty amazing things.

JA: In your personal experience, what was the difference between your growth as a musician at the Master’s level versus the doctoral level?

CB: Given that my graduate degrees are in leadership and theory and policy studies, there wasn’t a big difference for me. I have an undergraduate degree in music, and after that I just learned as I went along. The interesting part is – as I said to the students at the conference – there doesn’t always have to be one path to get to be where you want to go. Sometimes people think they can’t ever be a singer because they studied music education, or they say I’m a singer and I didn’t study conducting therefore I can’t. My co-conductor Mark is a phenomenal musician who studied as a classical pianist and has become a writer and a composer and all sorts of things. I think it depends on how you transfer the skills you’ve learned in one area to make it work. What I needed to learn in conducting I learned from watching others. I asked Z. Randall Stroope to conduct Primus not only for the guys but for my learning, too – to watch how he would work with the piece. That’s the thing with lifelong learning – you look for those kinds of opportunities if you’re going to stand up in front of a crowd to do this work.

JA: What advice do you have for young conductors – undergraduate conductors and graduate conductors (if different)?

CB: The greatest gift to give yourself is to become a sponge. Watch everyone, and rather than be critical of what they’re doing, ask yourself what you can learn. If you hear or see something that’s not exceptional, ask why that is. Question, question, question, and be a sponge. Talk to people and watch people. One of the things we’ve done with the Amabile choirs over the last twenty-seven years is bring in guest conductors whenever possible. The choirs think it’s only for them, but it’s for the conductors benefit as well. We’ve had Jim Papoulis, Francisco Nuñez, Henry Leck, Cristian Grases, Stephen Hatfield, Bob Chilcott… This year we’ll have Karen Burke coming in who is a Gospel specialist, and we’ll spend time learning that style. Anthony Leech, the conductor at Howard University, also came in to do some work. My best advice is get out and learn from the best. ACDA conferences are an excellent opportunity for that. A couple of years ago at the Chicago Central Division conference, I was asked to be available for “buttonhole” meetings, and people could sign up for fifteen-minute one-on-one time slots to talk about boy choirs. Take advantage. Be a sponge, and read, and learn all that you can!